On Thanksgiving, the Washington Post dropped a bizarre story on Russia’s propaganda efforts during the 2016 presidential election. The idea isn’t new—nor is it necessarily wrong. But the Post does something beyond bizarre—and frankly in poor taste: almost primarily cites a new website/research project, dubbed “PropOrNot,” which is run by an anonymous cadre of researchers.
In an interview with the Post, PropOrNot’s executive director, who “spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid being targeted by Russia’s legions of skilled hackers,” explains: “The way that this propaganda apparatus supported Trump was equivalent to some massive amount of a media buy. . . . It was like Russia was running a super PAC for Trump’s campaign. . . . It worked.”
Even looking past the Post’s bizarre decision to grant anonymity to a researcher because of “Russia’s legions of skilled hackers”—which, for the record, is a bullshit rationale—the article is pushing two utterly nonsensical claims. First, it relies on a questionable definition of propaganda that removes any sort of agency from the equation. Second, it runs of the false assumption that whatever Russian disinformation campaigns are running actually had a substantive effect on the election.
In the first instance, PropOrNot’s calculus as to what constitutes “propaganda” relies on a definition of what constitutes accurate Russia reporting that is dependent on what they see as their preferred Russia policy. It leaves no room for dissent, and no room for views that, while potentially inaccurate, are ones many could have embraced on their own. The site lists several requirements for deciding what is and isn’t “propaganda,” but there are only a few worth focusing on.
One of PropOrNot’s main guidelines for manually identifying Russian “propaganda” calls for checking to see if “the social-media account/commenter/outlet has a history of generally echoing the Russian propaganda ‘line’ by using themes, arguments, talking points, images, and other content similar to those used by obvious Russian propaganda outlets.” PropOrNot’s understanding of the Russian propaganda line includes an amalgam of positions that could be held by either the right or the left, and rarely come to the fore in any direct form. These include: praise of Putin or his allies, denunciations of the West and its allies as “weak” or “aggressive,” endorsements of Russia’s foreign policies (little is said of domestic), and phrases like “wake up sheeple.”
Looking beyond the utterly obvious—who the hell in their right mind would read something using the word “sheeple”?—PropOrNot’s definitions are vague enough that it’s managed to pick up a number of progressive, left-leaning, and even alt-right sites with no discernible connection to Russia whatsoever. Truth Out, a progressive news outlet that’s home to a number of well-known left-wing commentators, is listed. TruthDig, a West-coast-based outlet that has written extensively on U.S.-Russia relations, appears alongside another progressive outlet, Mint Press News. On the conservative/alt-right end, the Drudge Report, the Ron Paul Institute and American Renaissance—a white nationalist website run by Jared Taylor—made an appearance.
That said, there are some outlets that deserve to be called out, although it’s unclear how many are actually visited by the average American reader. Yes, RT and Sputnik both make a rightful appearance, but their connections to Russia are obvious. Nationalist/Eurasianist outlets like Katehon (a think tank that frequently features the work of noted nationalist Aleksandr Dugin, among others), New Eastern Outlook, Russia Insider, and Southfront have obvious ideological or financial ties as well. Still others, like the Center for Research on Globalization (GlobalResearch.ca) and Infowars, ought to be written off entirely as viable sources for their conspiratorial thinking alone.
It’s a strange list, to be sure—strange and practically useless. TruthDig and TruthOut have little to nothing in common with the array of Russian nationalist websites—especially the ones pushing a particular brand of modern Russian irredentism. They have no physical or ideological ties to Russia; their policy preferences, while perhaps misguided at times, come from a different political calculus. But PropOrNot’s definition leaves these considerations—which would normally be crucial to any real definition of propaganda—out of the picture. For them, propaganda can be broadly defined as:
A systematic form of persuasion that attempts to influence the emotions, attitudes, opinions, and actions of specified target audiences for political, ideological, and religious purposes, through the controlled transmission of deceptive, selectively-omitting, and one-sided messages (which may or may not be factual) via mass and direct media channels.
Strictly speaking, propaganda doesn’t need to have started with a government, but if we’re calling it “Russian propaganda” some sort of connection certainly helps. Some sense of agency helps as well—is this outlet or person aware that they’re pushing out messages beneficial to a particular actor? PropOrNot tries to bridge this gap by throwing out the Cold War term “useful idiot,” but it makes no effort to explain why this term is even applicable. As far as useful idiots are concerned, these sites would be pretty low on the totem poll anyway.
But perhaps PropOrNot’s most moronic claim is that this is all somehow meant to singularly benefit Donald Trump. As I’ve written about before, this line of thought is at odds with actual foreign policy discussion coming out of Russia. RT wasn’t acting as a shadowy pro-Trump super PAC; it was—and will continue—to spread a certain form of disinformation, but the term implies a preference toward chaos and confusion, not a single substantive outcome.
What should be distressing isn’t that PropOrNot and related efforts routinely go over the line—there’s plenty of idiocy to go around on the internet. Rather, the issue here is such carelessness—which the Post also happened to engage in—has turned any discussion of U.S.-Russia relations into a bizarre zero-sum game. There’s no space for nuance. Ironically, for a site that claims to look out for any “discouragement of critical analysis,” there’s little room for dissent. All of distracts from concerns that we ought to be addressing without resorting to hyperbole. Yes, Russian hackers did try to disrupt a presidential election; and yes, the wealth of fake or misleading news—including that published by Kremlin-funded outlets—is disturbing.
PropOrNot will likely fade from relevance. But it’s worth heeding one lesson: blaming the woes of the world on our favorite boogyman, Russian trolls, shows a terrifying lack of imagination.
UPDATE (Nov. 26): Is PropOrNot run by pseudo-intellectual, wanna-be analysts? As my friend Robin pointed out on Twitter:
It certainly makes sense. From PropOrNot a few hours ago:
The hashtag, which is in Ukrainian, means roughly “Putin is a dickhead.” It’s a fairly common anti-Putin slogan, born out of the early days of Russia’s incursion into Ukraine. Then, of course, there are posts like this:
Translation: Glory to the heroes! It was all over Kiev when I was there last year—even had the bizarre experience of seeing an older woman walking around chanting it. I’m by no means fluent—or even have a working knowledge of Ukrainian—but it’s one of those phrases you catch on to really quickly.
PropOrNot insists they’re a more diverse coalition than that, but their approach certain fits with Ukraine’s ham-fisted approach to Russian propaganda.